The turnout at this year’s Earl McMunn Contemporary Issues in Agriculture Forum was a little depressing. At Wednesday’s talk about urban farming and the future of agriculture, there were fewer than 30 people in the room, including the handful of guests on stage.
Bobby Jones and Henry Peller were brilliant at the event. Peller, a fourth-year sustainable plant systems, presented his classification system for urban farms. Jones, a 2013 Ohio State graduate, told stories about problems running urban farms in Columbus. The emcee was Bobby Moser, retired dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and dinner was City BBQ, provided by Saddle and Sirloin an OSU animals and meat industry interest club.
The evening’s discussion was framed by a classification system Peller developed while traveling in Haiti and Cuba. He divides urban farming into three general categories: farming for business, farming for the community or for education, and farming for sustenance.
Urban farming for business was typified by the farms in Havana. Peller told the audience about a system of farms inside Havana that provides for 80 percent of its vegetable and fruit consumption. Havana’s urban farming system was forced on the Cuban people by their government after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the USSR’s agricultural shipments to Cuba. They went from a heavy-input, industrialized model of farming to a low-fertilizer, low-tech model essentially overnight. And according to Peller, it works.
OSU’s student farm at the Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory is an example of the educational category of urban farms — it’s located just across the Olentangy River from main campus, at the intersection of Kenny Road and Lane Avenue. The City Farm Columbus community garden Jones runs is another. Its mission is to grow fruits and vegetables, teaching people how to grow and take care of crops along the way.
If a student working at a community farm decides to go into farming, all the better, said Peller and Jones. A common theme at the forum was the worry that, once the current generation of American farmers collectively kicks the bucket, there will be no younger generation to fill their seats in American tractors.
The sustenance category of urban farming was harder to discuss. Where business farms guard their crop, and community farms advertise and invite people in, people growing their own food are harder to see.
Fortunately, one audience member piped up with his own story. As an employee of a brand-name fertilizer company, he has access to plenty of fertilizer. Last year, he grew 600 pounds of tomatoes, he said, and gave most of them away. Jones said children working in the City Farm garden often take home produce to their families after harvest.
Urban farming was chosen as a topic for the forum by members of the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow, a professional student organization in CFAES. I’m technically a member of that organization, but I haven’t been to a meeting in months and was not involved in the planning of this event.
Why didn’t more people come? I don’t know. It might have been a marketing problem. It might have been that few students care about the future of agriculture. I sincerely hope the latter is not the case, especially within the college of ag.
Next spring, keep an ear out for announcements about the Earl McMunn forum. It’s sure to be worth your time.